Outlaw: One Priest in the Underground Chinese Church


“Chu lai! Chu lai!”

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Guang-Zhong Gu awoke in the pre-dawn hours, bathed in the sweat of a balmy Shanghai September.

Unfamiliar voices barked, “Come out! Come out!”

Lights overhead flashed on. The cold steel snap of ammo clicked into machine guns. Fists pounded at the doors lining the long corridors of the Xujiahui Seminary, normally bustling with the quiet sweep of long, black robes.

Gu, a 23-year-old third-year seminary student, leapt out of bed. Already dressed in shorts and a shirt, he stuffed his feet into a pair of shoes. No time for socks. He stumbled through the door without looking back. He’d never see the room again.

“Sit! Head down! No looking up!” shouted a plainclothes officer from the Xujiahui district police station. With arms waving and fingers pointing, they rounded up more than 150 seminarians and half-a-dozen Jesuit priests, the teachers. Although asleep only moments before, all the men were wide awake as they took their seats.

It was the early morning hours of September 8, 1955. Fifty years ago — the date remembered, commemorated, penciled-in, and cursed as the day that the authoritarian, totalitarian Communists waited for the dark hours to arrest hundreds of boys and girls, men and women, laity and clergy.

They were criminals. They were Roman Catholics.

Officers led Gu, under arrest and in handcuffs, outside and pushed him onto one of the trucks normally used to transport coal. Still night, Gu saw nothing as he squatted down. Though there were other seminarians beside him, they were invisible in the dark. The truck lurched forward, and Gu and the others swayed with the motion. Only the roar of the engine, the grinding of the gears, and the crunch of the tires over the gravel in the road filled Gu’s ears. No one spoke.

The ride in the truck lasted ten minutes. A foot slammed down the brake pedal. It was the end of the road for him: Xujiahui district police station.

For six months, Gu sat and waited in a cell. No court, no judge, no trial. Just waiting. His crime?

Now 72, Gu (which he has Westernized to Koo since coming to America) sits straight up in his office chair in the rectory of St. Leo the Great Church in San Jose, California. Eyes forward, he raises his index finger and points to an imaginary criminal in front of him. His voice takes on a tone of authority. He stabs the air with the finger as he recounts each charge — as though he’s back in prison again.

“The first charge is: Guang-Zhong Gu never recognized himself as counter-revolutionary!

“The second is: Guang-Zhong Gu joined the counter-revolutionary organization, the Legion of Mary, and resisted to resign!

“The third is: Guang-Zhong Gu never recognized Bishop Kung as counter-revolutionary!

“And Guang-Zhong Gu never recognized the Legion of Mary as counter-revolutionary organization!

“My four crimes,” Gu says, smiling, shaking his head. “My real crime? I joined the Legion of Mary.”


The formation of Legion of Mary chapters began in 1948, when the Rev. W. Aedan McGrath, an Irish missionary of the Society of St. Columban with a chapel in Shanghai, established the Catholic youth organization in several cities throughout China. Months later, with the end of the three-year Chinese civil war that followed in the wake of World War II, the Communists defeated the ruling government and took over the country.

A high school student in 1951 at St. Francis Xavier College — founded by the Marian Brothers and renowned for its high English standards — Gu, a fourth-generation Catholic blessed with the baptismal name of “Matthew,” readily joined the Legion of Mary when invited by a schoolmate.

Gu’s father, a prosperous import-export businessman with his own Zhong Xing lace company in southern Shanghai, warned his son not to get too involved in the Catholic Church.

“Communists don’t like Catholicism,” he counseled.

The Communist political party encourages atheism among its members and has never approved of the Catholic Church. Intolerant of dissenting opinions, Communists — the single-party power — will not accept the power of the Vatican in any form in China. Not only was — and still is — the practice of Catholicism in China suppressed, but so was — and still is — the ordination of priests and the consecration of bishops.

Nearly as soon as Gu joined the Legion, he felt the Communist pressure against him and the other members. Most of the young people remained faithful, and the bald show of Communist power didn’t deter the Catholic youth of Shanghai.

Not when Communists arrested McGrath September 7, 1951. Not even when, a month later, the Legion of Mary was declared a counter-revolutionary, subversive organization — an illegal society using the cloak of religion, with its members labeled spies for America.

Bishop Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung, who had encouraged McGrath to start up the Legion of Mary chapters in Shanghai, urged the young members to hold fast to their Faith. The Communists blasted Kung as the mastermind of a counter-revolutionary gang.

“Be strong,” Kung encouraged the Legionaries. “Do not comply with the Communists.”

“We will never surrender,” most assured him. “I will never surrender,” Gu vowed.

Communist officials in the Religious Affairs Bureau section of the government constantly monitored religious activities and selected those they wanted arrested. Names were dispatched to district police stations in the area, and officers delivered to the unlucky ones the summons to appear.

Gu was one of those unlucky ones. Once at the station, investigators circled him and ordered him to resign. Gu merely stared straight ahead. In response, police took the teen in temporary custody overnight. In the morning, as he stood motionless, officers grabbed one of his thumbs, inked it, pressed the print to a piece of paper, then set him free.

He was left alone — for a while.


For several seasons, Gu forgot about their threats and fell into the normal rhythm of life. At the age of 21, he felt the call and joined the Xujiahui seminary in 1953, the same year all foreign missionaries were expelled from China. For the next couple of years, the Communists — who declared religion useless and harmful — arrested many Catholic priests.

Then came September 8, 1955, that early morning — ironically, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary — when Gu was hauled off to the Xujiahui police station, then transferred from one detention center to the next.

One afternoon, as Gu sat on the floor with his legs crossed in front of him, his back against the wall and his eyes closed, he heard a guard call a number. Gu didn’t respond. The guard screamed, “From now on you don’t have a name!”

Gu stood up as the guard twisted his arms behind his back and led him to a dark room. “Will you pray again?” spat the guard, grabbing Gu’s hands, yanking them up behind his back. Cold, rough-hewn steel wrapped around his wrists.

“No! No!” Gu responded, in pain. When he returned to his cell, his hands remained bound behind his back for a week.

“I ate like a dog. They put food on the floor, and I ate like a dog,” Gu explains. He gets down on the office linoleum tiles, with his hands behind his back, and leans forward to demonstrate.

After a couple of months, officials transferred Gu to the Shanghai city prison in the Tilanqiao district, where each of the small cells was crammed with several men. When a man moved left, the others moved as well.

Tilanqiao. Only the worst offenders were sent to Tilan-qiao: rapists, murderers, thieves. And Catholics.

One day, he heard a guard call his number. “Yes!” answered Gu, standing and stretching his hands between the bars. The guard shook a piece of paper before him.

“This is your sentence,” the guard said.

No court. No trial. No judge. Five years in prison.

In a matter of days, Gu, along with dozens of other prisoners, was woken at 3 A.M. with the loud blast of a whistle. They were herded into several waiting buses that transported the prisoners to the Za Bei district train station — the old station in Shanghai.

Gu and the others climbed into the cattle cars that made up the long train. He didn’t know how many were in the car with him — everything was black. He doesn’t know how many days they traveled. Four, maybe five. Only bread to eat and water to drink. No windows. No light. Only scattered air vents.

But he remembers the cold. And he remembers the knee-high wooden bucket the men had to share for waste elimination.

“Just like a beer barrel,” he says, laughing.

With so many men, the mess soon overflowed and splashed to the floor. Before too long the bucket was abandoned, and the men decided to urinate out small holes that dotted the car’s wooden planks. When the steel wheels below finally stopped their constant turning, Gu heard voices and a pounding on the outside. Unable to open the door, guards used a sledgehammer to chip away the frozen urine that had sealed the great sliding door closed.

When the panel finally opened, the men blinked back the whiteness that nearly blinded them. There was snow everywhere. Inmates hopped out of the railcars and sank to their thighs in the drifts. Nonetheless, they began trudging to the prison. Miles later they arrived at Fularji brick factory, a working prison in Heilongjiang province, just one frozen breath away from Siberia.

For six months Gu made bricks in the factory, guarded by members of the People’s Liberation Army. But then on August 15, 1956, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Gu was ordered to board a train back to Shanghai. Officials in spiffy uniforms with shiny buttons arrived in Heilongjiang to pick up the Catholics and return them to the city for their appearance in court. Gu’s five-year sentence was cancelled, all charges dropped. He would have a trial. He would wait, again, in Tilanqiao.

One day, Gu received a visitor. “I am your lawyer,” he told Gu. “Your family paid me $8, and I will help you get out of prison.”

“I didn’t ask for a lawyer,” Gu told the attorney. “I don’t want a lawyer.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I am sure. I don’t want a lawyer,” he said, thinking, All I need to do to get out of prison is to surrender. And I’ll never surrender.

On the day of his trial, Gu was transported to the Second Intermediate People’s Court, in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai.

“I walked handcuffed into court. The judge was there. They took off my cuffs. I made the sign of the cross. With 300 Catholic people in the audience and to my family, I wanted to show them that I’m still faithful to my Church, because I could not talk to them. I never surrendered.”

The judge asked Gu a few questions, shuffling papers around his desk.

After 20 minutes, the judge declared, “Case closed,” then stood up and left the courtroom.

On his way back to the truck from court, Gu passed his mother in the stairwell.

“I will see you later. I will be back home,” he said.


Gu was sent to an urban labor camp in Shanghai, where for one year — from 1956 to 1957 — he dried freshly dyed socks. While there, Gu learned that he had been sentenced to three years.

Communication proved difficult between imprisoned Catholics. After lunch one day, Gu walked with a fellow seminarian, praying the rosary. While prayer was forbidden and all rosaries confiscated upon discovery, the Catholic prisoners learned to improvise. They unraveled their silk stockings, weaved the threads together, and knotted the silk.

The seminarian slipped Gu a letter. “We must be faithful to the pope,” he wrote. “We must be faithful to God.”

Gu, who still yearned to be a priest, hid the note in the folds of a cloth he used for a pillow. He didn’t think much about it, until the day he heard a guard call his number.

“Who wrote this letter?” he demanded, holding the paper in front of Gu.

“I never gave them the name,” Gu says now, remembering the ordeal. “I never betrayed my friend.”

Six months later, the guards questioned him again. “We know it’s Paul.” Gu responded, “If you know, then I don’t have to tell you.”

Because of the letter, Gu faced more charges in the summer of 1957: the intention to organize a counter-revolutionary organization in the prison.

In the winter of 1957, he learned that he had received an additional sentence of seven years, added on to the previous three-year sentence. Gu doesn’t recall if he had a trial, but he does remember being shipped to Xining, the capital city of Qinghai province, where he worked in the Qinghu machine tool works.

Four days after his arrival, someone falsely accused him of fleeing from the prison, and guards threw him into solitary confinement. For nine days, Gu remained in a dark box, no larger than a doghouse. Straw covered the floor. A small wooden door slammed open, his food shoved through the hole, then just as quickly the small door would shut. The walls were so narrow he could only stretch one arm at a time; the ceiling so low, he could only crawl. He had to eat and sleep on his own defecation.

“Just like a pig,” he says.

Once out of solitary, he worked 16 hours a day breaking rocks in the steel factory. In the same factory, hammering away at another pile of rocks, was Rev. Zhong-Liang “Joseph” Fan, the former rector of the seminary where he and Gu were arrested in 1955. At the factory, the two never saw one another.

From Qinghu, Gu was sent to three penal farms: Wongshike, Xing Zhe, and Wayuxiangka. These places of punishment are commonly known as laogai — reform-through-labor farms. There he worked — shoveling morning to night — the virgin fields atop the vast Qinghai province plateau, more than 10,000 feet high. Only grass as far as the eye could see.

The food was terrible. This was the time of the great famine, known as the Three Years of Natural Disasters (1960-1962), during which an estimated 20 million Chinese died from widespread famine. It’s largely blamed on Communist China’s first Five-Year Plan, in which the Great Leap Forward focused on the increased mass production of steel. With the numbers of peasants removed from the fields and placed in steel-making capacities, crops were left unharvested. This led to starvation.

While at Xing Zhe Farm in Qinghai, Gu’s body began to collapse. At five-foot-nine, his healthy adult weight hovered around 140 pounds. “During the Great Famine, I weighed only 81 pounds. I went to a doctor, because I couldn’t lift my leg. He started to, but couldn’t give me an injection, because I was only a skeleton.”


In 1960, five years into his imprisonment, Gu was moved to the Wayuxiangka penal farm of Qinghai province. There he continued farm work: turning the sod of virgin fields, planting wheat seed, watering fields, cutting the wheat — usually 13 hours at a stretch.

Finally, in 1965, Gu’s ten-year prison sentence was completed, and he became a “post-prisoner.”

“The government tells you your sentence is finished. You’re not prisoner anymore, but you become detained employee and receive very little money. The same place, the same work, but no guard. A prisoner has a limited sentence, but not post-prisoner. This is the policy for all prisoners at that time. You are not a prisoner anymore, but you still obey. This is the policy. There is no reason,” Gu says.

One “benefit” of being a post-prisoner is the opportunity to go home for occasional visits every four years. On one of his home visits, Gu, still faithful to his calling, learned of the underground Church.

Finding it impossible to destroy Catholicism from within, the Communists tried to eliminate it from without by establishing a government-controlled church independent of the Holy See. As early as 1949, the People’s Republic of China had established the Three-Self Reform Movement, so called for its aim to be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.

The movement was replaced by and integrated into the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, officially founded on July 15, 1957. Being patriotic in China meant being a revolutionary, which meant being anti-imperialist and anti-papal. As a result, Catholics were branded unpatriotic counter-revolutionaries.

Most Catholic churches in the People’s Republic of China were destroyed during the Proletarian Cultural Great Revolution, which began its spin out of control in 1966 when the government’s central committee instituted a purge of intellectuals and those considered imperialistic. This involved on-the-spot inspections, nighttime raids in homes, and public executions of so-called counter-revolutionaries, reportedly urged by Communist Party Chairman Zedong Mao.

For ten years, until Mao’s death in 1976, the purge continued. During this Chinese Reign of Terror, temples and churches were burned and ancient art and texts destroyed. Following the death of Mao, Xiaoping Deng — one of Communist China’s leaders — opened his nation to the world. For money, Gu says — especially American money.

Officials in the labor camp instituted English classes for guards, families of guards, and families of detainees who lived in the camp with their post-prisoner relatives. There was just one problem. No one spoke English but Gu. And so, still a detainee in Qinghai province, he began work as a language teacher, earning $90 a month.


During one of Gu’s home visits, he traveled to the house of Rev. Hong-Sheng “Vincent” Chu to say goodbye to the priest. While he was there, the doorbell rang.

“Did anybody see you?” Chu asked his newly arrived visitor, Rev. Sergio Ticozzi, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries. Chu feared he was being watched.

“No,” answered Ticozzi.

“This is my student,” Chu said, introducing Gu. “He still keeps his vocation.”

“Come to Hong Kong,” Ticozzi told Gu. “We have a seminary there.”

“I am still in the labor camp. I cannot go to Hong Kong.”

Ticozzi scribbled down his address and handed the information to Gu. Later, while by himself, Gu took his long overcoat and turned the sleeve inside-out. He picked at the stitching and pulled at the thread, undoing a seam. Into the crease, he tucked the piece of paper with Ticozzi’s address and sewed up the opening. Gu couldn’t take the chance that the labor camp officials might find the address, as they found the earlier note from his seminarian friend. This was an address he would need.

In the summer of 1984, when Gu returned from a labor-camp street market, he noticed a commercial truck parked at the front gate. The truck was not from the camp — the driver would have no idea who he was.

Gu approached the truck feeling confident. He was wearing his teaching clothes and made certain the package of the best quality Chinese cigarettes, Dai Qian Men (big front gate), was visible in his shirt pocket.

“Can you take me to the long distance bus station, just outside the labor camp?” Gu asked the driver. “Yeah,” the driver replied, without suspicion.

Gu ran back to his room and packed his two pieces of luggage: a battered leather suitcase in one hand and a rolled-up quilt in the other.

“This is what I earned for 19 years in labor. All my treasures,” he tells me.

After 24 years at Wayuxiangka penal farm, he rode off and made his way to the Gung He Second Middle School in Qinghai province, where he had earlier met the headmaster in secret, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Finally, after decades of imprisonment, he succeeded.

For the next four years, Gu taught English at the school during the day and — still faithful to his vocation — studied theology at night. His textbooks consisted of two books Bishop Fan had given him earlier.

In February 1988, Gu visited Fan, who lived in a small room in the second story of his niece’s home in a Shanghai suburb.

“I want to be ordained,” Gu told him.

“If it’s God’s will, everything will be fulfilled,” Fan assured him.

Days later, on February 22, Fan ordained Guang-Zhong Gu.

“I was so happy. I rode my bicycle back home, and I think, I don’t belong to this world. Everything was foreseen,” Gu says.

Three years earlier, his brother, Le-Tian “Joseph” Gu, had moved to the United States and encouraged his brother to follow. Gu retrieved his overcoat and ripped open the seam. Ticozzi’s address was still there, and he sent it to his brother. A few months later, Gu traveled to the American consulate in Shanghai where he met a young man in charge of immigration. Gu was afraid his one opportunity to leave China was slipping away, so he took a chance.

“Please,” he begged, “I was in seminary and was arrested in 1955 with Bishop Kung, then I was in prison for ten years and labor camp for 19 years.” The young man left the room and returned a few minutes later with the verdict: Gu would be able to leave China.

Overcome with happiness, Gu sobbed. Soon, he would be in America.


As the afternoon grows late and my flight time approaches to return to Los Angeles, I ask Father Gu if he would say Mass. He leads me to a chapel on the Marian side of the church. I kneel in the first pew as he leaves to change into his alb and green chasuble. A moment later, he stands before the altar.

“I offer this Mass for the special intentions of the persecuted Church of China,” he says.

“Father, in Your mysterious providence, Your Church must share in the sufferings of Christ Your Son. Give the spirit of patience and love to those who are persecuted for their faith in You, that they may always be true and faithful witnesses to Your promise of eternal life.”

For this, he gave 29 years of his life. For this, Father Guang-Zhong Gu never surrendered.


This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.


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